A Tunisian vendor poses as he sells white truffles at a market in the town of Ben Guerdane, 40km west of the Libyan border, in February 2016.
North African governments dedicate considerable resources to national security. These efforts are directed towards threats from insurgents, terrorists and militias operating within the countries of the region and along their borders. Most of the governments in the region have extensive internal security agencies tasked with controlling civil society and suppressing dissent. Smuggling and human trafficking are also major challenges for North African security services, which tend to carry out unilateral actions. Regional security cooperation remains weak and is one area where North African countries could unify their efforts. There is also a strong case for closer coordination between the countries of the region and authorities in Europe to tackle human trafficking.
Counterterrorism and counter violent extremism
Following the 2011 uprisings across North Africa, a wave of extremism gained ground in the region, which became a hub for a new generation of jihadis. In fact, half of the world’s top 20 sub-national recruitment hubs are in North Africa and nearly 27 per cent of the 30,000 fighters who travelled to Syria are from countries of the Maghreb.
Figure 1: Foreign fighters from North Africa who travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2011
This new generation of jihadism is increasingly mainstream and appeals to a younger audience of men and women, using social media outreach as its primary recruitment tool, while threatening to undermine fragile governments and radicalize publics in divided societies. Radicalization has various general root causes: political, social, economic and religious. However, the role of religious indoctrination has become less critical in attracting potential jihadis. Current recruitment is mainly based on social, economic and political factors that reinforce each other, such as social and cultural marginalization, socio-economic grievances, authoritarian political environments and broken social contracts. The prevalence of the informal economic sector and high unemployment, especially among young people, are symptomatic of weak state capacities in North Africa, which provide a breeding ground for radicalization.
The shifting patterns of recruitment reflect a change in the sociology of jihadism in North Africa. An important development is the move of jihadism from rural to urban environments. In most North African countries, recruitment is higher in urban areas, particularly on the margins of cosmopolitan cities such as Casablanca, Tunis, Algiers or Cairo. The recruitment process has been normalized and is increasingly concentrated in urban locations.
The shifting patterns of recruitment reflect a change in the sociology of jihadism in North Africa.
Most North African governments pride themselves on leading the fight against terrorism in order to appeal to the international community. Their approaches to countering radicalism range from hard-line security measures to softer tools, such as moderate religious education and socio-economic development of impoverished areas. However, most North African countries rely primarily on heavy-handed responses to radicalism as they tend to view the phenomenon exclusively through a security lens.
Among North African countries, Morocco’s CVE approach, which employs a combination of soft and hard tools, is portrayed as one of the most inclusive and comprehensive. The adoption of an anti-terrorism law in 2003 (amended in 2014) strengthened the country’s security apparatus and led to the establishment of a counterterrorism unit in 2015, the Bureau central d’investigation judiciaire. Moreover, it also launched projects to bring mosques under tighter control and to support comprehensive training programmes for imams. Recently, the Moroccan General Delegation of the Penitentiaries and Reinsertion Administration (DGAPR), the country’s prison administration, launched a deradicalization programme in prisons to rehabilitate former jihadis and prepare them for reintegration into society.
Tunisia also pursues a multi-level approach to fight radicalism. The security apparatus made several efforts to reform and regain public confidence following the 2011 revolution, especially since the country has been the target of various terrorist attacks. The government has also shut down several mosques and Quranic schools suspected of being extremist, which has been controversial.
The Algerian approach has been markedly different, drawing on lessons learnt from the return of fighters who had fought in Afghanistan and the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. Algeria’s counterterrorism strategy is centred on preventative measures and deradicalization. The Algerian government seeks to reintegrate former fighters into society as occurred following the ‘Black Decade’, when the government offered a path to reconciliation for former extremists. As a result, Algeria has succeeded in limiting overall jihadist activity and the security apparatus maintains a zero-tolerance approach towards jihadism.
In Egypt, the main focus of CT operations in recent years has been in northern and central Sinai, where established local jihadist groups with links to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have operated since late 2014. The Egyptian security forces are continuing to wage a large-scale counter-insurgency campaign in this area. The campaign has included the destruction of homes and other buildings along the border with the Gaza Strip to create a free-fire zone, which has resulted in the displacement of thousands of people. Despite this hard-line approach, the insurgency remains active. This has delayed progress on government plans to invest in infrastructure, housing and development projects in the area, as part of a long-term strategy to address socio-economic grievances. Jihadists in Egypt have exploited the narrative of avenging the removal and detention of former president Mohamed Morsi and the violent killing of hundreds of his supporters in July and August 2013. Jihadist groups in Egypt have benefited from logistical supply lines from Libya, although these have been impaired following the rise of the Libyan National Army in eastern Libya under the Egypt-backed General Khalifa Haftar.
This security-led approach offers short-term successes, but little beyond that. CT operations might succeed in neutralizing the threat and destroying terrorist cells, but they fail to address the long-term root causes of radicalism. The current approach has elevated the standing of the country’s security apparatus and hindered the role of non-security measures.
All North African governments have strong CT relationships with the EU and its member states, including the UK, France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. They are bonded by bilateral and multilateral security agreements and information-sharing mechanisms, while they have also developed programmes related to security and CT. However, this cooperation has sometimes come at the expense of human rights and democracy. The UK and EU can use their leverage to link cooperation on CT and CVE with the respect of liberties and human rights. An important step would be to put an end to the attacks on press freedoms and individual rights, which have been facilitated by broadening the definition of terrorism by North African governments. However, there has been a tendency for some European governments to confine remarks on human rights and democracy to the margins, owing to the primacy of commercial considerations, including major arms deals.
Regional security cooperation
Regional security cooperation is an area where North African countries can build synergies. CT is a highly sensitive issue for North African governments, which is why little ‘formal’ cooperation occurs and instead there is often competitive rivalry on the issue, especially between Morocco and Algeria. This political challenge has been exacerbated by the ongoing unrest in Libya, a general lack of trust between North African countries, and poor coordination within each state’s own agencies and institutions working on CT.
Despite these challenges, over the past decade there have been some instances of relatively successful cooperation, for example on intelligence gathering and sharing between Algeria, Niger and Mauritania. Some North African countries are bound by security agreements, for example Tunisia and Algeria have multi-level cooperation on security and border control.
While North African intra-cooperation on CT is mainly low profile and bilateral, such individual action is not as effective as regional and international cooperation. However, these instances of intra-cooperation in North Africa may act as a platform for future regional or multilateral bodies.
Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan military members participate in training programmes led by the US Army, such as Flintlock 2019, which is US Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) largest annual Special Operations Forces exercise. Military forces from these three countries also participated in NATO training programmes with Middle Eastern participants. Another example of successful cooperation is the 5+5 defence initiative.
The problem of jihadist returnees is shared by North African governments and presents an opportunity to create synergies in the area of deradicalization and rehabilitation. Reintegration is crucial for building social cohesion and tackling the root causes of radicalism in the long run. This requires strengthening communities’ resilience and developing inclusion-mechanisms for former jihadis, including foreign fighter returnees.
For a quarter of a century, North African governments have designed their own deradicalization and reconciliation programmes, of which Egypt and Algeria have led the way. In the mid-1990s, Egypt created an initiative for jihadis detained in its prisons, which especially targeted members of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya and Al-Jihad Al-Islami. As a result, several jihadi leaders renounced violence. However, Egypt completely abandoned this ‘soft’ approach in recent years.
In 2007, Libya successfully deradicalized jihadi inmates, particularly those affiliated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), but the country has since ceased this initiative. Morocco launched the Moussalaha programme in its prisons in 2016, but it remains to be seen whether it has been a success. Meanwhile, Tunisia is new to deradicalization; the government recently delegated this task to prison management, allowing these institutions to develop ad hoc measures for rehabilitating jihadi prisoners. However, the country’s infrastructure is unable to support the number of detainees convicted of terrorism and lacks the resources to separate them from the wider prison population.
When it comes to dealing with foreign fighter returnees it is crucial to focus on rehabilitation starting in prisons, with a view to later reintegrating former jihadis into society. This necessitates the right legal framework that distinguishes the levels of leadership and engagement within jihadi organizations and tailors deradicalization measures to suit, potential categories include: (1) leaders and ideologues; (2) recruiters and brokers; (3) young and new jihadis; (4) family and children. This requires a more nuanced approach in categorization and changes to the laws and procedures to reflect different punishments for the various categories.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, North African countries can learn from each other’s experience in deradicalization and share best practices. Algeria’s experience of reconciliation with its jihadis in the 1990s makes it an important source of expertise for other countries. The synergies that can be created through experience-sharing should not be discounted.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, North African countries can learn from each other’s experience in deradicalization and share best practices.
In order to build sustainable rehabilitation programmes, governments should focus on developing community resilience and adopting a gender-sensitive and holistic approach led by development agencies and CSOs, rather than a security-led interpretation of CVE.
These requirements reinforce the importance of finding local solutions and necessitate a role for both the private sector and civil society, as well as municipality and community leaders, to create mutually beneficial rehabilitation projects.
It is important to consider gender in this approach. Women should be seen as potential peace actors and not only as victims or perpetrators. Women tend to be the peacemakers in their communities, and can have a positive impact in helping vulnerable people resist jihadist recruitment drives.
Prisons are key institutions in deradicalization programmes. Yet, they are poorly resourced to deal with radicals, including returnee foreign fighters. Against this backdrop, many states prefer to leave their citizens in Syria, revoking their passports or allowing them to be executed rather than granting their return and reintegrating them into society, which only worsens transnational jihadism.
Lastly, CSOs are important prevention and reintegration actors in CVE. The region’s various CSOs should coordinate their efforts to build trust and establish dialogues with government stakeholders. There needs to be clarity and transparency around their roles, with states recognizing that CSOs are independent organizations and not there to act as informants. In this regard, Tunisia and Morocco, to a lesser extent, are an exception in the region and an example of successful cooperation between the state and CSOs.
International donors, including the UK, have funded governments’ efforts to build sustainable deradicalization programmes that aim to reintegrate former jihadis into society. So far, the results are mixed. The efficacy of CVE programmes is still unclear, and implementers are reluctant to make thorough and appropriate evaluations of them for fear of losing funding. As a result, programmes continue to run despite having no proven positive impact, or even detrimental impacts.
The third important element of synergy among North African governments is the role of the religious establishment in countering radical ideologies or engaging with state CT and CVE policies. There is potential for cooperation on this matter as religion plays an important role in societies across the region. North African populations are majority Sunni, and all governments follow and promote the Maliki jurisprudence in fiqh. The religious establishment can play a positive role in reducing extremism. For example, in Morocco, the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs has been training imams to promote a ‘moderate’ version of Islam.
There are already some programmes for religious cooperation in the region. For instance, the Mohammed VI Institute for Training Imams in Morocco previously brought hundreds of imams from North Africa to the country to discuss cooperation. Given the vacuum in religious discourse and loss of credibility of imams in Tunisia and Libya, both countries can benefit from this kind of training.
However, state-endorsed interpretations of Islam could exacerbate disenfranchisement and further alienate individuals. For example, the passive approach of the current Imam of Al-Azhar and the Moroccan government’s influence and control of mosques have pushed away young people and led to criticism of the state-sanctioned version of Islam. A more holistic approach is needed. In this regard, the inclusion of CSOs and independent religious scholars in the design of these programmes is an important development in the fight against extremism.
Border security and human trafficking
Across the Maghreb, local populations have been able to create order and stability in borderlands when state capacity has been insufficient. This has been facilitated through tacit agreements between central authorities and local elites or powerbrokers, to ensure local order and secure gains for local populations without challenging the sovereignty of the state. In recent years, however, cross-border activities have come under scrutiny and once ‘normal’ activities have been rendered illicit, due to the focus on terrorism and smuggling.
Borders in North Africa cover great distances and are often described as being porous as they are easy for those that are determined, connected or wealthy, to traverse. Some North African governments have secured their borders by building physical barriers such as walls and fences. For example, the Morocco–Algeria border, which has been closed since 1994.
For the most part, however, security actors in the region lack the capacity, training and equipment to effectively secure their boundaries. This is particularly the case in Libya, given the ongoing conflict and the lack of state control. Officials have little training and few resources to police borders, and are often assigned under the influence of militias that have infiltrated state apparatus to control border areas. The EU launched an integrated border management initiative in 2013, through the Common and Security Defence Policy (CSDP). This project aimed to support the development of border management and security across Libya’s boundaries and to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean area.The project was not fully implemented, and resulting gaps were filled bilaterally by countries such as Italy, which co-opted local actors to halt migration to Europe, who in turn took advantage of EU security goals for their own ends. This securitized approach failed to address the root causes of smuggling and comes at the expense of human rights and long- term stability.
Even in the instances where countries have strong relationships and close cooperation, such as in the case of Tunisia and Algeria, security failures have occurred on several occasions when attempting to stop terrorist groups from crossing shared borders.
Smuggling and transnational crimes
As for smuggling, border towns and cities, such as Oujda, Ben Guerdane and Maghnia, have become notorious for contraband and cross-border activities. Most smuggled commodities are items needed for daily life, such as fuel (from Algeria and Libya to neighbouring countries) and other government-subsidized goods, such as wheat or cooking oil. Before 2011, authorities considered smuggling activities to be under relative control. They tolerated cross-border trade of certain goods, such as food and cigarettes, as a way to pacify vulnerable and neglected border communities. After the fall of the Libyan and Tunisian regimes, smuggling expanded in magnitude and scope. More recently, especially in Libya, these lucrative smuggling markets have become more restrictive as local groups and militias have moved in.
In response to falling oil prices since 2014, Algerian authorities have tightened control of the country’s borders. This has negatively impacted the economies of the border cities, which depend on smuggling. There has also been a clamp down on smuggling in the northern cities of Morocco since 2017. The introduction of increased border controls by Spanish authorities in the cities of Ceuta and Melilla has increased unemployment in this region among young people and women formerly active in smuggling activities. The governments of North Africa have yet to succeed in creating sustainable economies in border regions and there is growing frustration among unemployed young people. Terrorist incidents in the border regions, especially in Ben Guerdane in 2015, have focused the attention of authorities in these areas, which led to a sharp decline in smuggling activities.
Corruption is endemic in North Africa and is considered an enabler of transnational crime. This is particularly the case among border security forces and customs officials. Meanwhile, there have also been cases where hospital workers in Tunisia have been caught smuggling medicine. In addition, in 2018, members of the Algerian judiciary were implicated in one of the largest cocaine busts on the continent. Smuggling has a significant corroding influence on state institutions, which is revealed by the systematic networks of corruption that have evolved to facilitate the trade. These may benefit other forms of transnational crimes, such as drug trafficking.
Corruption is endemic in North Africa and is considered an enabler of transnational crime. This is particularly the case among border security forces and customs officials.
Drug trafficking has become one of the central components of transnational crime in North Africa. While the cannabis trade remains predominant in the region, in recent years the cocaine trade has grown significantly. The quantity of cocaine seized in Africa doubled in 2016, with countries in North Africa seeing a six-fold increase and accounting for 69 per cent of all the cocaine seized in the region in that period. Major seizures in Oran and Tanger-Med ports demonstrate that cocaine trafficking uses existing routes and globally integrated port infrastructures.
Another element of transnational crimes concerns the trafficking of antiquities and historical artefacts, which has been happening in Egypt for several years; there are also concerns in the rest of North Africa, pertaining to the illicit trade of protected species, flora, fauna and wildlife.
Migration and human trafficking
In the last few years, North Africa has witnessed a rise in migration flows from and through the region. It has long been an origin and transit site for migration towards Europe. In 2018, there were an estimated 150,114 migrant arrivals in Europe, down from approximately 180,000 in 2017, with most migrants using the western routes in North Africa.
In North Africa, mixed migration complicates the challenge of managing borders, as flows consist of trafficked persons, economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Border officials are not equipped or particularly interested in distinguishing between these groups, which has significant consequences for migrants as each category has a different legal status. Furthermore, some individuals start their journeys as migrants but fall victim to trafficking networks en route or once they arrive at their transit destination. However, if they come into contact with law enforcement agencies in North Africa, they are often treated as criminals due to their illegal status. Authorities need to clamp down on the organizers of trafficking networks rather than their victims in order to make progress.
Reforms need to be institutionalized in order to be effective. An important factor in their success will be how well the countries of origin, transit and destination cooperate. International actors should also align their responses to this challenge. This could be achieved through coordination between the offices of each country’s attorney general to agree to mutual legal assistance, including making formal contact with other countries and undertaking joint investigations. The UNODC is already doing this in some North African countries.
Governments in North Africa need to prioritize their efforts. Instead of simultaneously fighting all forms of smuggling, it is important to focus on preventing transnational smuggling of weapons, drugs and migrants, while letting everyday goods flow freely, as the latter could accelerate regional trade by normalizing inter-country trade. Officials, particularly those on the borders, need to be trained to exercise this level of discretionary responsibility with the support of technological equipment.
Potential areas for synergy
Improving safe migration
In response to a rise in migratory flows in North Africa, Morocco launched a new pioneering migration policy in 2014. The scheme created a positive and welcoming environment for migrants by providing them with residence permits, which regularized their status. Similarly, the Ministry of Labour in Libya is working on labour agreements with Niger and Mali as a protective measure for circular migrants.
Migration has a negative portrayal across the region, which needs to change in order to solve the challenge. Migration can create links between countries as migrants tend to maintain contact with their point of origin. In response to migrant smuggling and human trafficking, there is a need for modern and proactive measures. For example, Moroccans are using social media including YouTube channels and blogs that communicate with would-be migrants in their local dialects and advise them on migration-related matters. They promote legal methods of migration and describe how to apply for refugee status. These techniques have also been used to highlight the risks of smuggling. The large number of followers that these initiatives have on social media demonstrates how communication can play a positive role in highlighting alternatives as well as the lies told by traffickers.
The diaspora as a vehicle for local development
The role of the diaspora and economic migrants in the EU can be an important element for local development in North Africa. Their contribution goes beyond sending remittances. Diaspora and economic migrants create complex networks of highly skilled people through which they can share knowledge and training.
The EU should cooperate with North African governments to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and skills in order to improve development in North Africa. In this regard, it is important to involve local actors. With support, municipal councils have the potential to serve as forces for stabilization and development in borderlands, and to restructure governance in these areas. Municipalities also present an opportunity for regional cooperation across North Africa. Municipal councils located in border areas are keen to work with their counterparts in neighbouring countries, but there is often resistance from the central government. To be effective, political decentralization must be accompanied by administrative and fiscal decentralization.
Security-led approaches to borderlands tend not to consider the socio-economic challenges and root causes of illegal smuggling and criminal behaviour in these areas. Smuggling routes can adapt in response to hardened security measures in border areas, which can render a narrowly focused border management policy ineffective. As such, there is a need to adopt a more holistic approach that targets the more stable smuggling hubs for illicit goods and provides alternative livelihoods in these locations.
There has been progress in cooperation on transnational crime, for example, customs officials across North Africa have met in recent years to discuss technical cooperation. On an informal level, cooperation through personal relationships between border forces can be more effective. In fact, there are some low level and technical exchanges between Morocco and Algeria, however, the coordination of policies must come from central governments thatmust engage in dialogue on such matters. There is also a need for institutional capacity-building to ensure that national legislation complies with international instruments to address transnational crime.